If It’s Not All Right…

Several weeks ago, we saw the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with some friends, a thoroughly enjoyable film. I have seen many people since then repeat the constant refrain of Sunny, the young hotel proprietor: “Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, then trust me, it’s not the end.” The line came to mind during my prayer yesterday.

I’ve been using Paul’s letter to the Romans for my daily prayer. Yesterday I prayed with the first part of Chapter 5 of Romans. Paul writes that “we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that afflictions produce endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Hope does not disappoint. This is not hope as in “I hope the Mets win tomorrow,” recognizing that they could just as easily lose, or “I hope I win the lottery,” knowing there is very little chance I will. This is hope in the sense of certain expectation. Hope with confidence. Hope that knows we will not be disappointed.

Things may not go well for us at one or more times (or many) times during our lives. We will suffer. We will experience heartache and loss. But we also know that in the end it will be all right because the love of God has been poured into our hearts.

If is not all right, trust me, it’s not the end.


Abandoning the Pack Rat Creed

My friend Kathy Berken wrote a book several years ago about her experiences living in a L’Arche community in Clinton, Iowa. Titled Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark, it is a worthwhile read for many reasons and her openness in describing her own growth through some extraordinarily difficult experiences is inspiring as well as instructive.

One of the the episodes she related was not at all unique to L’Arche community living and it involves a subject I suspect many of us can relate to.

Talking about one of the residents in the house, she described his tendency to take things home and stash them “in his sacred drawer alongside all the other crap he brings home.” It was her further description that I resonated with:

It’s a Junk Drawer. Pack Rats like us grew up with the family Junk Drawer. The Pack Rat Creed is: “Don’t throw that away because you never know when you might need it. The day you throw it out, that’s when you will need it.”

Sigh. How familiar I am with the Pack Rat Creed…and I have more than one “junk drawer.” Despite the fact that I don’t buy a whole lot of anything other than books, I seem to accumulate a lot of stuff.

I do throw away a lot of things. But it takes conscious effort to overcome the “you never know when you might need it.” (It is amazing how many possibilities the mind can come up with for potential uses for something that hasn’t been used for at least several years.)

I do think the conscious effort is worth it. I always feel better after I’ve trucked several big bags of things off to Goodwill or otherwise donated them. But there is always more, and I know I need to commit more firmly to abandoning the Pack Rat Creed.

Non-Dualistic Thinking

One final post prompted by my reading of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards.

Rohr gives one the simplest, yet completely accurate description of dualistic thinking. He writes that dualistic thinking is the “well-practiced pattern of knowing most things by comparison. And for some reason, once you compare or label things (that is, judge) you almost always conclude that one is good and the other is less good or even bad.”

Rohr presents “seven C’s of delusion, suggesting that the dualistic mind compares, competes, conflicts, conspires, condemns, cancels out any contrary evidence, and crucifies with impunity.

In contrast, when we grow into nondualistic thinking (he also uses the terms contemplative thinking and both-and thinking), “you no longer need to divide the field of every moment between up and down, totally right or totally wrong, with me or against me. It just is. This calm allows you to confront what must be confronted with even greater clarity and incisiveness.

Dualistic thinking is not inherently bad. Rohr suggests it is very helpful – even necessary – in the first half of life. The hope, however, is that as we move to the second-half of life, we can grow from dualistic thinking to nondualistic thinking. “Nondualistic thinking presumes that you have first mastered dualistic clarity, but also found it insufficient for the really big issues like love, suffering, death, God, and any notion of infinity. In short, we need both.”

For what it is worth, regarding how we move to nondualistic thinking, I think Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See is an wonderful book to read.

Images of God

As I mentioned the other day, I’m currently reading James Keenan’s Moral Wisdom, a book I really think is worth taking the time to read.

I’ve written and spoken a number of times about our image of God – what our image of God is can have an enormous impact on us.

Talking about how various images of God are useful, helping us approach God in prayer and in hope, Keenan sounds two cautions.

First, he observes that “we need to make sure that our image of God is not simply one image.” The danger of failing to allow other images into our prayers is that we “confine our understanding of God to a minimalist understanding.” That seems right to me – we know at one level that nothing we say to describe God can capture God completely. But the danger of a single image is that we can easily forget that it is an image and it becomes a definition of God.

Second, he suggests that as we get older “we should look for images that are competitive with one another.” Our understanding of Jesus is broadened, for example, if our image of Jesus carries both the Jesus who turns over tables in the temple and the Jesus who welcomes little children.

As I reflect back over my recent retreat experience, I can appreciate Keenan’s point. Several times during the retreat, the Jesus I needed to be with was the figure represented in a sculpture in the retreat house’s Sacred Heart chapel. A seated Jesus is portrayed with a child. The child is leaning his head against Jesus’ shoulder. One of Jesus’ hands is around the boy’s shoulder and the other holds his hand in his lap.

But at other times, I needed to be with a more challenging Jesus. The Jesus who invites Peter (and me) to walk to him on the water. The Jesus who says leave everything and come follow me. And the Jesus (who I spent a lot of time with) who hung from the cross at which I stood. All of these images contributed to who Jesus is to me and who I am with Jesus.

What are you images of God? Do you have more than one?

Miracles vs. Magic

I just finished listening to a course on the Great Figures of the New Testament, taught by Vanderbilt University Divinity School Professor Amy-Jill Levine, generously lent to me by my friend Harry. Professor Levine is a gifted lecturer and I’ve both enjoyed and learned much from her talks on the “great figures” she selected for inclusion in the course.

One of the last figures Professor Levine addresses (the last two are Paul and Jesus, each of whom gets two lectures in the series) is Philip, who was appointed with Stephen to serve at table, ensuring that food distribution to the widows. Philip fled Jerusalem at the start of the persecution during which Stephen was killed.

One of the episodes discussed is Philip’s encounter with Simon Magus. In connection with that story, Professor Levine raises the question of how one distinguishes between miracle and magic. What makes what Simon does magic or sorcery and what Peter and John do miracles or “signs and wonders.”

It is an interesting question. From the point of view of the observer, there is no difference between magic and miracles. Both usually break normal scientific laws and influence things in what appears to be a non-natural manner.

But it is clear from accounts like this one that the Bible treats miracles and magic as being different things and I think it is correct to do so.

There is an enormous difference between the intention and purpose behind miracles and magic. One commentator put the difference this way: “Magic intends to astonish, to draw attention to its own prowess, to put the focus on the power itself. Miracle intends to use the exercise of power to benefit another, to address the real needs of one human being or a group of human beings.” As I wrote in a recent post, Jesus’ refused to exercise his power to feed himself when tempted to do so by Satan; Jesus, however, showed no reluctance use his power to feed the multitudes.

Magic is about the magician’s power and desire. It serves the aims of the magician. Miracles are about the power and will of God.

The Only Gospel Someone May Hear

Yesterday was the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, one of my heroes and someone about whom I’ve written on several occasions.

The visiting priest at our Mass at Church of Christ the King was a missionary in Papua New Guinea, so most of his homily was directed to giving us a sense of life where he works. He did however begin his homily with some brief remarks on the readings and the day.

After suggesting that we are all called to do exactly what John the Baptist did, that is, herald the presence of Jesus in our midst, he observed, “your witness may be the only Gospel someone hears.”

That is a good line to remember. I think it is easy to think that what we do can’t matter a whole lot. That I am one person…how much good can I do…how many people will be affected by what I do, etc. Such thoughts can be discouraging.

It is good to remember that what I say, what I do, who I am, “may be the only Gospel someone hears.” It is an encouraging message.

Shadow vs. Sin

Having talked about sin in two posts in a row, I thought I’d highlight an important distinction. This is prompted by my reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards, which I mentioned in a post the other day. In the book, Rohr talks about our shadow.

The term “shadow” is familiar to many of us. Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, what we try to hide from both ourselves and others.

What struck me most in Rohr’s discussion was his comment that it would help many Christians to understand the distinction between shadow and sin. “Sin and shadow are not the same. We were so encouraged to avoid sin that many of us instead avoided facing our shadow, and then we ended up ‘sinning’ even worse – while unaware besides!”

What he means by that is that our failure to recognize and get in touch with our shadow ends up tricking us since our shadow is always disguised as good. Rohr explains

The shadow self invariably presents itself as something like prudence, common sense, justice, of “I am doing this for your good” when it is actually manifesting fear, control, manipulation, or even vengeance.

Thus we need to learn to be alert to the exposure of our shadow self. Rohr gives one good hint for recognizing such moments: look for situations where you have a strong emotional reaction that seems to be out of proportion to the situation at hand. That is a good signal of your shadow self. Such moments offer good opportunities for reflection.

Sinning Out of Our Strengths (or Failing to Bother to Love)

One of the books I’m currently reading is Mortal Wisdom: Lessons and Texts From the Catholic Tradition, written by James F. Keenan, S.J. I’m not entirely sure how the book ended up on my “to be read” pile, having no recollection of who recommended it or what otherwise prompted me to buy it. One of the early chapters of the book is devoted to the subject of sin.

In the chapter, Keenan poses the question whether “we really sin out of our strength or out of our weakness.”

Mostly, Keenan suggests, we spend our effort striving to overcome one or another weakness. And when we go to confession (those of us who do), we confess our weaknesses: our struggle with anger, with lack of courage, with lack of patience. That focus, he maintains, “allows us to avoid the real understanding of sin.”

When we look at the Gospel narratives, Keenan reminds us, the stories we hear about sinners are not about people who sin out of their weakness, but those who sin out of their strengths. The Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is in his strength. The rich man who steps over Lazarus is in his strength. And he gives several more examples of people who could have done something but did not, leading him to ask “Is is not odd, then, that the entire Gospel tradition has us sinning out of our strengths, and yet we think that we sin out of our weaknesses”?

Focusing on our “weak sins” trivializes sin; it allows us to avoid highlighting “our coldness of heart, our meanspiritedness, our pettiness, our deep-seated resentfulness, our sinfulness. When we name our ‘weak’ sins, we claim simultaneously that we struggled, that we sincerely made an effort, that we were, after all, vulnerable and excusable.”

Keenan gives an amazingly short definition of sin:
Sin is simply the failure to bother to love….Our sin is usually not in what we did, not in what we could not avoid, not in what we tried not to do. Our sin is usually where you and I are comfortable, where we do not feel the need to bother–where, like the Pharisee…we have found complacency, a complacency not where we rest in being loved, but where we rest in our delusional self-understanding of how much better we are than others. It is at that point of self-satisfaction that–like…the Pharisee, the prodigal’s older brother, or the rich man–we usually do not bother to love.

That should give us all something to think about.

The Sin of Elitism

Jean Vanier (in From Brokenness to Community) writes that “elitism is the sickness of us all.” At first blush, I was taken back by the line when I came across it. I’m not an elitist was my immediate reaction, as I suspect it would be for many people reading the line.

His next line, however, opened my understanding. “Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team.” Whatever our reaction to his first sentence, I suspect few of us could deny the truth of the second sentence. Who doesn’t want to be one of the winners?

But, of course, once there is a winning team, there is a losing team, as to which the winning team is superior. Once there is an insider, there is a outsider who doesn’t belong. And so on. Hence, Vanier’s continuation of his thought. “Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is the heart of apartheid and every form of racism.”

Vanier wrote those lines from the recognition of the “immense forces of darkness and hatred” within his own heart. And he recognized the need to acknowledge their existence, to not pretend none of that “garbage” exists within us. He continues, “The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside.”

Heaven and Hell

During my retreat I started reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. I wish I could remember who recommended the book to me so I can thank the person; it is a really wonderful book. The title comes from Rohr’s conviction that it is by falling down that we grow from a first-half-of-life spirituality and way of being to a second-half-of-of-life one (a move not everyone makes).

One of the things Rohr talks about is heaven and hell. He talks about hell in a way that is not dissimilar from some others I have read and that resonates with me. Indeed, it is the only way I can understand hell. Rohr writes

God excludes no one from union, but must allow us to exclude ourselves in order for us to maintain our freedom. Our word for that exclusion is hell, and it must be maintained as a logical possibility. There must be the logical possibility of excluding oneself from union and to choose separation or superiority over community and love. No one is in hell unless that individual himself or herself chooses a final aloneness and separation.

I confess this is not a understanding of hell that fits well with those who prefer to see those they label as sinners cast down into punishment. But it is one that is consistent with a God who has unconditional love for us.

That explanation of hell also helps appreciate an important reminder Rohr makes in the chapter: that heaven and hell are “primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment.” That reminder helps us understand why we can taste heaven or hell during our lifetimes.